At Ebertfest, I once saw four films in one day. During the fourth film, time vanished, reality regressed to dreams, and I left the theater unsure where I was. During SIFF this year, I saw five films last Wednesday (and am planning on seeing five today). The next day, I did one better. Somehow, the films remained distinct, though the press screenings did some time-bending.
Press Screenings–Uptown Theatre 1
10:00 am, Sugarcane Shadows (David Constantin, 88 mins, Mauritius 2014)
Sugarcane Shadows showed promise in its first hour, but petered out in its last 30 minutes. The film deals with residents living in Mauritius who must deal with a sugar plant closing and the coming of modernity to their traditional way of life. After the film ended, I grabbed food prepared at home, which I’d stashed in the staff fridge.
12:00 pm, Sensa Nessuna Pieta (Michele Alhaique, 94 mins, Italy 2014)
According to the press screening email: “You wouldn’t want to run into Mimmo in a dark alley — especially if you owed his boss money. His loyalty is tested when a violent confrontation sends him on the run with a beautiful young escort, and we realize his lumbering size is matched only by the size of his heart.” We also realize that this movie is like scores of gangster movies before it, except with a handheld camera. It’s not bad, but it’s not special, either.
2:00 pm, Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 98 mins, USA 2015)
The best of the three press screenings, Cartel Land is a documentary that follows vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border combating drug cartels — one to keep drugs and illegal immigrants out of the country, the other to reclaim their towns from violence.
4:30 pm, Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 87 mins, USA 2014) — Harvard Exit
As Bus 8 made its way through rush hour traffic, I debated sitting down and eating dinner instead of seeing this film, since I calculated that my arrival would occur around the time the movie was scheduled to begin. I thought, in particular, of going to La Cochina & Cantina, which has a buffet option. As I walked by the restaurant, however, I decided dinner could wait, arriving at the Harvard Exit almost exactly at 4:30. Unlike the two non-press screening films I saw the previous day, I got in before the presenter began talking. Even before the film ended, I knew I had made the right choice.
This excellent film covers the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, TX. Focusing on several of the contestants, we also hear from the newspaper reporters who cover the competition and the judges who decide the winner. A brief history of the competition and of Van Cliburn is also included (for those who don’t know, Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, making him an international celebrity at age 23). Afterwards, director Christopher Wilkinson joined us for a Q&A. When asked how he knew which contestants to follow, he said, “Usually the most interesting contestants make the most interesting music” — his personal favorites being Steve Lin and Alessandro Deljavan. The film plays after the festival on July 31st on PBS. In addition, there’s a YouTube Channel with clips from the 2013 competition: https://www.youtube.com/user/VanCliburnFoundation
7:00 pm, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Roger Allers, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, Michal Socha, 84 mins, Canada 2014) — AMC Pacific Place
If I’d known how bad Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was going to be, I would’ve skipped it and sat down for a meal, instead of grabbing food on the way. Since I didn’t know, I walked from the Harvard Exit to Pacific Place, buying a Dick’s burger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake en route. I also bought a mustard packet, though how I was planning to put mustard on the burger while carrying a milkshake in one hand and the bag in the other wasn’t thought out ahead of time. Somehow, I timed it all perfectly, so that while I arrived after passholders were let in, this was the first festival screening — minus opening night and press screenings — at which I arrived early.
The main problem with this movie is its presentation. The book is supposedly full of profound essays on life, love, children, marriage, work, and play, but the movie makes the mistake of over-emoting, either through the visual presentation for each segment (most of the directors above are independent artists, who each were responsible for one segment), the music (in one of the worst ideas, the texts are made into songs, with no attempt to make them sound like workable lyrics, or workable music), or pauses in Mustafa’s (Liam Neeson’s) telling of these life lessons, with the result that they sound like sanctimonious crap. In a weird twist, the version I saw included English subtitles (even though it’s in English), so at times I tried to tune out Aslan and read the words on the screen to see if the truths they espoused still sounded like bad Hallmark greeting cards. It doesn’t help that after the “song” segments, Neeson repeats the last two lines of the text — as if this is supposed to punctuate the phrase, instead of puncturing its balloon.
While the visuals during the essay portions are at least beautiful, the regular animation is only slightly better than that of a Saturday morning cartoon, though the final scene with the seagulls rises above that mediocrity. Also, while the essay portions were the main offenders of the film, the sections in between featured flat characters with no personality in trite situations — a waste of a talented voice cast (besides Neeson, there’s Selma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfred Molina, and Frank Langella — with Langella being the only one who made me feel something besides disgust). No need to see this film, unless you’re a masochist. I would’ve walked out, but I had one more movie to see and nothing to do in between, so I enjoyed the visuals during the essay portions and pretended I was deaf and illiterate for the duration.
Update 5/29: Forgot to include this photo, which I took between the two screenings at Pacific Place. Happy Red Nose Day!
9:30 pm, Cherry Tobacco (Andres Maimik, Katrin Maimik, 93 mins, Estonia 2014) — AMC Pacific Place
After wasting 84 minutes of existence on the previous film, Cherry Tobacco reminded me that some filmmakers know how to make movies. One could argue that the film has no resolution, but it’s more concerned with the journey that teenage Laura (Maris Nõlvak) goes through than what she learns from it. The humor is funny, the situations are based in honesty, and the older man whom Laura develops a crush on is not portrayed as a monster, but as someone who may enjoy the company of younger women because of the argumentative existence he shares with his wife. Ultimately, however, the success of the film is due to Nõlvak’s portrayal of Laura. Young, fresh-faced, and comfortable with her physicality, she inhabits her character effortlessly, a highlight being an early scene where she dances alone with a confidence that refreshed after the stilted nature of the previous film. A gem.